Dr. Seuss makes a final house call

January 12, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

The Cat in the Hat came back. But who was that snub-nosed little girl next to him?

Yesterday, more than three years after the death of Dr. Seuss -- aka Theodor S. Geisel -- Random House began selling "Daisy-Head Mayzie," a book based on a Seuss screenplay that his widow found in a drawer. Seuss aficionados may wish it had stayed there.

Fans of all ages who have been waiting eagerly for the new book -- one woman has called Borders in Towson constantly over the past month to check on its arrival -- may be disappointed by Mayzie. She looks more like a garden-variety cartoon character than a Seuss creation.

This is because unnamed helpers -- editors at Random House BTC and animators at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc. -- fleshed out the screenplay and the rough sketches that accompanied it for an upcoming animated special on TNT. They created characters with softer lines and more tropical colors than one expects in Seuss' world. In fact, the cartoon came first, and the book was produced from its animation cells.

Spokeswoman Kelly Grunther says Random House is pleased with the result.

"When you look at this art, it is not the penned art, but it looks very Seussian -- which may or may not be a real word," she says.

Seuss' widow, Audrey Geisel, declined through Random House to be interviewed. But last week, she told her hometown newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, that she was "perfectly delighted."

"It's almost haunting how Seussian it is," she said in the interview, published Jan. 5. "There is the spirit going through."

L While Mrs. Geisel may be haunted, others may merely shudder.

"The characters don't have Dr. Seuss' kinetic charm," said Ellen Riordan, children's acquisition librarian for the Enoch Pratt Library System, who examined the book yesterday.

"Another Seuss book is always met with some expectations, because he's an important part of the children's literature canon. But if you were going to buy a child a Seuss book, and he didn't own them all, you would be better served by "Horton Hears A Who," "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," or "The Cat In The Hat."

Regardless of the reaction of Seuss purists, Random House is clearly expecting a book with Dr. Seuss' name on it to sell big: the first printing is 250,000.

Mrs. Geisel discovered the manuscript in a drawer when she began renovating her La Jolla, Calif., home after her husband's death in September 1991.

The manuscript is believed to have been written in the 1960s.

She took the screenplay and sketches to Random House and TNT, the Ted Turner cable channel that has already produced one Dr. Seuss special, a documentary about his life. The cartoon version of "Daisy-Head Mayzie" will air Feb. 5.

As the title indicates, Mayzie is a little girl who inexplicably sprouts a flower from her head. Initially ostracized, then manipulated by an oily agent named Finagle, she markets her phrenological oddity with great results, but loses her friends in the process.

Alone and unhappy, she discovers the daisy's true meaning.

The Cat in the Hat narrates the tale, although it's not clear if that was Dr. Seuss' intent.

"The cynical adult in me says he's a marketing tool," Ms. Riordan says, comparing the Cat to "just a kind of 'Our Town' narrator." "Well you know about daisies," the Cat in the Hat says of Mayzie's dilemma. "When love is in doubt,/The job of the daisy is, Try and Find Out!"

Petal by petal, the daisy does just that.

Whatever its sales, "Mayzie" will have a difficult time eclipsing the 40-odd children's books Dr. Seuss produced in his lifetime.

Those books have sold 200 million copies and been translated into 200 languages. "Oh The Places You'll Go!," a Seuss book aimed at adult readers, has been on the New York Times' hard-cover best-seller list for 133 weeks out of the last four years.

Theodor S. Geisel's 54-year career as a children's writer began in 1937 with "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street."

He is sometimes credited with the single-handed annihilation of Dick-and-Jane primers, replacing them with such simple chants as "Hop on Pop" and "Fox in Socks." Over the years, his sometimes topical tales also touched on dictators ("Yertle the Turtle"), the environment ("The Lorax"), and the arms race ("The Butter Battle Book," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984).

But he is probably best remembered for such apolitical souls as the Cat, whose red-and-white hat enjoyed a recent, decidedly brief vogue among young people, a sock-footed Fox, and Horton, the elephant who believed in promises and the value of every life, no matter how small.

As for Mayzie -- it remains for the petals of her daisy to count out the public's reaction. Love her? Or love her not?

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